Troy – Richard Jimenez became interested in aviation in the first grade, locking the now 85-year-old Troy resident into a career trajectory that always felt more like play than work.
“I built model airplanes, but I didn’t realize what I was doing – I was preparing myself for my life’s work,” Richard said.
He got introduced to hands-on work at a young age. His father was a wood patternmaker in Mexico City, and had to flee to the United States alone when the Mexican Government found out he was making things for the revolution in the Mexican Civil War.
Eventually Richard, his mother and brothers were able to join his father in Cleveland.
His dad had a workshop in their house, and Richard said he would get curious as a young boy and play with the equipment.
“I saw all those tools there – lathe, drill press, band saw – and I started experimenting with it,” Richard said. “All he [my father] said was ‘you’ve got to be careful because you can hurt yourself with these power tools.’”
Richard was born with a paralyzed right arm; He said he got the disability during his birth.
The story he was told was that when a baby was too big like he was, the procedure was to break the infant’s collarbone to get it out. When this happened to him during his birth, the doctor tore out the nerve in his arm, and tore out the nerve at the base so they didn’t have anything to reconnect it to.
“I cant imagine every parent letting me experiment with these power tools, because had I broke my arm or something, I couldn’t have dressed myself, I couldn’t have eaten, I would have been helpless,” Richard said.
“I’m sure that gave them gray hairs,” he added. “It had to. But they never, never said ‘don’t do it.’”
That was his upbringing, though: He was raised to be self sufficient and independent. They let him be wrong and learn from mistakes. He recalled his first day of kindergarten, and his mom walking him across a heavy-traffic street to school.
The next day, he had to go by himself.
“And when I started talking about aviation, they never said a word about, ‘don’t get involved with aviation,’” he said. While they did try to interest Richard in a wide array of things – buying him a chemistry set, for example – his parents never said anything to discourage his dream.
In Junior high, Richard met a kid named Jim Bede, who was also very interested in aviation; Richard said Bede was experimenting with little rocket and jet engines when they first met.
“He wasn’t having much success with his little rocket motor, it kept blowing up on him,” Richard said.
The two became very close friends and it was a friendship that would last through all the highs and lows in both men’s lives.
“I was best man for his wedding, he was best man for my wedding,” Richard said.
The pair went to high school together and went on to Fenn College, located near downtown Cleveland. When he was ready for college, Richard’s high school put him in touch with the Society for Crippled Children, who helped pay for his college education.
Because of that – and because his parents weren’t charging him room or board – Richard said he was in “pretty good shape” financially. His friend Bede had started getting his pilot’s license in high school, and Richard decided he wanted to follow suit in college.
“I could by an Aeronca Chief, a two-place aircraft – it had about, I don’t know why I remember this, but I remember this, 250 hours total time on the airframe, which is basically a brand-new airplane,” Richard said. “I could buy it for – are you ready for this? $650 dollars.”
He went to a flight school for lessons, but was refused because of his paralyzed arm, so instead he found an independent instructor, who said he would take Richard on as a student with the understanding that he couldn’t issue him a license – Richard would have to go to the FFA Regional Headquarters and take tests there.
So Richard learned to fly, taking off of a grass runway, and eventually got his license.
“Jim and I did a lot of crazy things together,” Richard said.
“We flew…I don’t know if I should say this,” he added, laughing. “You know how dumb kids are.”
The pair of friends would split up temporarily during college. When Richard got married to his wife Anita, he went to Tucson, Arizona, to work for the Hughes Aircraft Company, and Bede moved to Columbus, Ohio, to work for North American Aviation.
Richard didn’t finish college, and while he regretted not completing it at the time, he said “it turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to me.” Had he gotten the degree, Richard said he would never have taken as many risks as he did through his career.
“Jim [Bede] was a risky guy,” Richard said.
After Richard went to Tuscon, Bede got the idea to build his own aircraft, and got the backing of his father to start a company.
“And I got a call from him, and [Bede] said, ‘hey, I’m starting an aircraft company, you want to work for me?’” Richard said. “Well it took about a millisecond to make that decision.”
Bede had set up shop in Boca Raton, Florida, and Richard went to work with his friend.
The Jimenez family, made of Richard, Anita and their sons Michael and Dennis, would move around over the years a fair bit.
“Mostly when Jim would get another company going and he [my dad] would pull us up and we’d move,” Michael Jimenez said.
Bede was an optimistic guy and out of the box thinker, Richard said, but the money for that first project ran out, forcing Bede to move his operation and change gears towards a different airplane project. Richard went with, and while working with Bede, Richard said he was “buying books like mad.”
Bede had gotten a degree at the Municipal University of Wichita, and guided Richard to the books that would let him get involved in aerodynamics and other aviation principles.
“All this time I’m buying extra books and learning more about aviation,” Richard said. One of these books had concepts on how to cut down on aerodynamic drag – something that Richard would go on to employ in his present-day business.
After Bede’s business closed down, Richard went to work for a company making aircraft sub-systems, where he worked on a torpedo project that required special clearance. There he got involved with quality control people from the government and other companies – another fortuitous experience that would come back to benefit him later in life.
“I said, boy, someday I want my own company, I want to have an aircraft development company, so I got their quality control books and studied all that stuff,” Richard said.
In the meantime Bede moved just “across the airport” from Richard, and started designing aircraft for the home-build industry. This is where Bede would make his fame, designing the Bede-4 aircraft.
“It turned out to be one of the most popular kits at the early stages of the EAA [Experimental Aircraft Association], it was so simple,” Richard said. He helped his friend Bede with some engineering consulting while working another job, and eventually went to work with Bede again on the Bede-5.
“My life, I got paid for playing with airplanes,” Richard said. “You can’t have a better life than that.”
The Bede-5 was one of the most popular home-build aircraft at the time. Everyone in the EAA knew Bede’s name, Richard said, and Bede even had an aerobatics team running with the Bede-5J, the jet version of the airplane. That plane was so well-known it was featured in the James Bond film “Octopussy” in 1983.
“In a James Bond movie, he’s [Bond] flying a Bede-5…and he has to make an emergency landing,” Richard said. “And he lands and coasts up to a gas station, and says ‘fill her up.’
“Well, Corkey Fornof was the chief pilot of the [Bede-5 Jet Team] and he was flying in Pennsylvania to an airshow, and he really did have evidently some contamination in the fuel and had a flameout over in Pennsylvania, where there’s nothing but woods and a little road, so he landed on the road and he really did coast up to a gas station, and that’s where they got that idea.”
Despite the popularity of the Bede-5, money became an issue again, and Richard went to work for another company in Wichita called Precision Composites – the third bit of lucky experience for Richard, which would begin to pay off in a few years for him.
One more time, however, Richard would answer a call when Bede went at it again, this time bringing them both to the Spirit of St. Louis Airport in Chesterfield, Missouri.
“Being a slow learner – of course [Bede] said, ‘hey I learned all my lessons’ – being slow learner I said, ‘yeah, I’ll come and work for you again,’” Richard said. “But he did run out of money again, I was out of a job, 60-some years old and who wants to hire an old, almost 65-year old engineer?”
Instead of going back to work for someone else, however, Richard put into practice the pieces of knowledge he’d been accumulating through his long career in aviation. He relocated to Troy, and while doing some consulting engineering, Richard started to develop his own aviation products for his personal company: Aircraft Development.
He used the composite knowledge he’d learned and created more efficient, fiberglass strut farings for private airplanes that didn’t break as quickly as the kind produced at the time; built kits that closed the gaps between the ailerons for to increase lift and began making and selling other modifications that increased aircraft performance by reducing drag on the plane.
His experience dealing with the quality control officials paid off here as well, as he had to write his own quality control material for his products, and the books and knowledge he’d built up over a lifetime playing with things that fly paid off. Many of the products he sells are made out of fiberglass, and all are produced by private citizens for him, however Richard said he’s currently in danger of losing all the people who make the parts. One of the people making the parts got cancer, and had to quit, and others have had to slow down on the amount of work they can do due to personal reasons.
“It’s critical for my company to exist, because the people that are making all of the fiberglass parts are people that are working at home,” Richard said.
To make the parts, Richard said he looks for people who have the luxury of working at home and like a supplemental income. Many of the people he’s worked with have been retired, and in terms of the skills necessary, Richard said he looks for people with woodworking shops or experience crafting and working with their hands.
“Because number one, they have some of the tools they’re going to require to make the molds, and number two, they’ve demonstrated they can make things with their hands,” Richard said. He can train people to make the parts for free, Richard said, and said anyone interested in working with him should reach out with a message, phone number and mailing address at email@example.com.
A life of risks, paid off
Jim Bede passed away in 2015, putting a pin in a long friendship that had presented Richard with a lifetime of chances and excitement.
Despite the end results of many of Bede’s business ventures, and how it usually left Richard unemployed, Michael said there was never a hint of friction between Bede and his father.
“You’d have to say I’m a slow learner, because I worked for him three different times,” Richard said. “And every time it ended the same way, he ran out of money and I was out of a job – but God, it was so much fun.
“You were playing around, having fun and getting paid for it.”
Through his life, Michael said he doesn’t remember his dad’s paralyzed arm ever really being an issue; Richard would play ball with him and his friends, and had workarounds for things that needed two hands.
“I suppose to some extent it got in the way,” Richard said when asked about his arm.
Before computers, though, a lot of his work was done at the drafting table, which he figured out his own way to use effectively.
“It’s more of this,” he added, tapping his head, “than it is physical.”
While he doesn’t regret finishing college anymore, Jimenez said he does have one regret – a pretty personal one.
Wichita had a good sheltered industry program, Jimenez said, giving employment and housing to people with disabilities. During one point in Richard’s career while working in Wichita, he was debating whether or not to have the sheltered industry make some airplane parts for him.
While in the area where some sheltered industry workers were busy, he saw a “kid with an arm pretty much like mine,” who was soldering some parts for a Boeing Aircraft.
This memory is still an emotional one, Richard said, as it showed him how his life could have turned out.
“I never said to my parents, ‘thank you, for raising me [to be] independent,’” Jimenez said. “‘Thank you for making me independent.’ I was having such an exciting life, and what’s this guy doing? He’s making parts in a sheltered industry, they had homes for them where they can live – what a vast difference in lifestyles.
“The one thing they never said to me verbally was ‘you can’t use your arm as an excuse for not succeeding in life,’ they never said that verbally, but their actions said it.”